airstrike, said Air Marshal (retd) C Hari Kumar, who headed the
‘s Western Command during the operation last year.
Recalling the sequence of the events, Kumar said, “Post Pulwama, on 15th (February) itself, the Prime Minister had called for a CCS meeting to take stock of the event and see what should be done. On 15th itself the Chief of Air Staff was briefed at the Western Air Command as to what are the options that are available.”
Last year, on this day,
carried out air strikes in Pakistan’s Balakot, targeting Jaish-e-Muhammed’s (JeM) terror training camps.
The JeM had claimed responsibility of a deadly terror attack on February 14 in Pulwama, in which 40 CRPF personnel were martyred.
“At that stage, we looked at a certain set of targets to be addressed. However, on February 18, we got very good intelligence on Balakot which was conveyed from the leadership as to what it is all about. Considering the distance involved, the Air Force was the best service to tackle it. If it was something closer, it could have been something different,” he added.
The former Air Marshal said once the targets were decided, more intelligence was picked up on what all could be the designated mean point of impact in those targets.
Responding to how the IAF zeroed in on Mirage fighter jets to carry out the mission, he said: “If you look at Balakot geographically, then it is more than 50 km beyond LoC. At that stage, Mirage was the only one which carried both SPICE and Crystal Maze which gave us a much larger stand-off range.”
Explaining how the Air Force was able to keep the mission a secret, the Air Marshal, who retired two days after the mission, said: “In all these operations, there were multiple challenges. The first challenge was to keep the operation a secret.”
“In order to keep it a secret, I had to continue doing whatever was planned initially as a routine. If you remember, 14th (February) was Pulwama, 16th was Vayu Shakti at Pokharan, we went forth through the full exercise showing the capabilities of the Air Force, he added.
The Air Marshal recalled that between the planning and execution of the operation, there was the inauguration of the National War Memorial and Aero India Show and all of them continued as planned.
“I was retiring on February 28 after more than 39 years of service. Being in service for so long, there is a process of farewell and lot of other functions, we let it continue in the same fashion. The number of people informed was very less because in today’s world of very fast communication, there is a possibility that info could be leaked inadvertently by just talking loudly,” he said
“We did not use the mobile at all. Everything was either face to face or through secure communications. Only those select people knew what was to be done and what he had to do. He did not know the big picture,” he recalled.
Speaking about how they selected the date for the mission, he said, “On (February) 18th, when we got the target, we looked at the tentative date of 26th February for doing this attack. 26th is my birthday and I thought that is an excellent day. So the date was fixed. It was essentially said that let’s do it after Aero India because a lot of foreigners were in the country at this time.”
Speaking about the challenge the weather posed for the mission, he said: “The weather moved faster. We took a decision that we will do it on 26 (February) and if weather intervenes, we will delay it by a day.”
Asked about the operation being named “
“, the former Air Marshal recalled that it was a codeword to convey the success of the mission.
“It is on 25th that my farewell by the Air Force was going on. I had a big banquet on 25th in Akash Mess. The Chief had taken me across to lawns outside to reconfirm if everything is okay. At that time, all he said was when this is done, give me a call and if you say “Bandar”, that means it is successful and everybody is safe. It was a codeword to say the mission was successful,” he said.
The entire operation was coordinated, planned and executed by the control stations in headquarters, Western Air Command, the operations room, he said.
“We had these Mirages getting airborne from Gwalior. There was an option to bring them across to Western Air Command earlier, but we did not do it to ensure that everything remains normal. We got them airborne from Gwalior, went north into the Bareilly sector, went into the hills to use the cover of the mountainous terrain, and attacked after going north of Srinagar on a 270 direction towards Balakot,” he said.
“We knew for sure that based on their radar cover we would have a window of vulnerability of 12 minutes and to counter that, we had enough assets flying as
(CAPs) in our own territory in case there was a retaliation,” he said.
Talking about the final moments preceding the mission, Kumar said: “The time of the bomb impact was 0328. At 0305, we saw two F-16s getting airborne. He set up a CAP on the East-West axis over Murid. We were flexible enough to launch four Jaguars from Ambala, with two Su-30 CAPs at high speed to make it run towards Bhawalpur. Bhawalpur is also a huge JeM camp.”
“It was more like a decoy. Both F-16s broke the pattern and followed at high speed southwards. The decoy worked very well,” he said.
The Air Marshal said they knew for sure that Pakistan will retaliate.
“It was only later they (IAF jets) landed back, that is around 4 ‘o’ clock. We had a full air defence alert, so that pan-India, everybody is raised to a certain level of readiness,” he said.
The retired IAF officer said PAF had started activating itself on February 14.
“On Feb 27…In the morning on 0942, our radars picked up a lot of increased air activity across Pakistan. But we also have to understand that most of the flying that they do from their bases is towards the east. So it is a regular air activity. In fact, it was by day. They showed themselves. It is just that they got airborne in all the airbases, they regrouped and turned around east,” he said, talking of Pakistan’s so-called Operation Swift Retort.
“It’s not that we did not have adequate CAP. We had two sets of Su-30 CAPs next to Srinagar, two Mirage upgrade aircraft close to Udhampur and we had Operational Readiness Platforms (ORPs) all along. The moment it hit, two (MiG-21) bisons scrambled from Srinagar, MiG-29UPG scrambled from Udhampur, we had scrambles all along,” he said.
“It is just that they had used the time frame and moved in with large numbers. They never crossed IB nor the LoC. We could tackle them well. They dropped 11 bombs but none of them hit the target,” he said.
The former Air Marshal recalled that when they came in, there were enough counters by which they could not follow through.
“They did not succeed in hitting anything but they dropped so many weapons. They had the AMRAAMs. At that moment, he had the advantage of the first shot,” he said.
Speaking of the fratricide incident involving the IAF chopper, he said it was a “big mistake”.
On Pakistan claiming to have shot a Su-30, the former IAF officer said: “It is their imagination.”
Talking about the Balakot terror training camp, he said, “We had very good intelligence of a lot of people. I can’t put a figure but taking around 500-600 people (in the Balakot camp) is a good guess. If you look at Balakot, we are almost a year down the line and we have not had a major terror attack. The message is also clear that the use of the Air Force is not escalatory. The government has the will and wherewithal to take actions as quickly. Next time it happens, we will hit them even harder.”